The Darlington outpost of Godfrey Davis Car Hire stood amid a twilight zone of motor factors, auto dismantling yards and lower order motor traders in an undistinguished street close to the town centre. Outside a cheap looking, flat roofed office, with valeting bay to one side, sat a row of low-rent British Leyland, Chrysler, Ford and Vauxhall tin tops, enclosed by a gated security fence. Inside the office sat four . . . let’s say “easy on the eye” young ladies in corporate blue uniforms and their manager Rick, the proud owner of a caddish smile by which even Terry-Thomas would have been embarrassed.
The year was 1970, and I was an impoverished student in search of a summer job. With a passion for both cars and driving, an affliction endured practically from birth, Godfrey Davis was my first call that sunny Monday morning, and turned out to be my last. The girls lost interest in me the moment it became clear I was after a job rather than a car, but Rick was in urgent need of a cleaner, and so I was hired.
My first task was to clean a Ford Transit that had been carrying fish but was about to be redeployed for the less odorous job of moving house. This was not the work of a moment, took most of the day, and left me with a determination never to go to sea on a trawler.
Next day, things got more exciting. A Morris Marina a customer had failed to return had been found abandoned in an insalubrious part of Hartlepool. One of the girls would drive me to the scene of the crime from where I would recover the car. To date I had led a sheltered motoring life. I did not own a car, and on the odd occasion I found myself behind the wheel was steadiness personified, this being the only way of securing the occasional loan of my father’s treasured Wolseley 16/60, itself the personification of steadiness.
I was therefore somewhat surprised when we exited the yard in a four-wheel drift, and proceeded up the street in a blur of tyre smoke and valve bounce. This, my blonde, blue suited driver informed me, was how a Vauxhall Viva hire car should be driven. I seem to vaguely recall the needle disappearing off the business end of the strip speedometer as we “made good progress” up the A19, and much sooner than imagined we alighted upon a very sad looking Marina Coupe on a patch of waste land. The car was covered in mud and had a flat tyre, and there was vomit on the back seat. Helpfully, some eggs had been put into the fuel tank for good measure.
Eager to impress the blonde, I changed the wheel, put in some petrol from the can Rick had given me, and to my considerable surprise the engine started. However, the return journey, with windows wide open, was not a pleasant one.
And so a routine developed. Valet, check tyres and top up levels, with the occasional delivery or collection. Hillman Avengers, Ford Escorts and Vivas were slow but handled, Ford Cortinas and Morris Marinas were quicker but soggy. Transits were just plain noisy. However, occasionally one of the few Executive Zodiac Mk IVs on the fleet paid a visit, and they were something else.
The first example I encountered had a message taped to the sun visor which stated in bold ballpoint, “Drops down at 110. Please fix.” Blessed with a 140bhp three-litre V6 and automatic transmission, they seemed then like missiles. However, cornering was a challenge on Goodyear G8 cross-plies. Indeed, on wet cobbles outside Darlington Station, the car would barely move, even on the lightest of throttles.
At both the station and Teesside Airport the car hire companies maintained occasionally manned kiosks, and there was a friendly rivalry between the UK’s oldest car hire company (established 1920), and foreigners Avis and Hertz. Although it never developed into outright warfare, if the opposition could be “inconvenienced” we were encouraged to do so.
Frequent visitors to the office were the police, usually for a cup of tea and to chat up the girls. This was encouraged, in the mistaken belief that “enthusiastic” driving would be overlooked. Plod was also employed on occasion for evening trips to pick up cars urgently needed from other offices. I too would sometimes go along for the extra money. Which brings me to the infamous Mersey Tunnel Rumble.
After hours, five coppers, one of the girls and I jumped into a Transit Crew Bus and set off for Liverpool to collect six cars. This was the first time I had been driven by a patrolman, and his smooth yet rapid progress was a revelation. On the Wirral side of the river six of us grabbed car keys, mine belonging to an anaemic Cortina 1300, and then headed back through the tunnel beneath the river made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Being on unfamiliar territory, I stuck to the tail lights of the Avenger ahead like glue, its constabulary driver clearly on a mission to get home before turning into a pumpkin. We were all doing well north of the 30mph tunnel limit when stopped by Merseyside Police at the exit.
So, the end of a beautiful career and clean licence, I thought. But once again teenage naivety was to be confounded. Warrant cards were flashed and we were on our way.
As the weeks passed my limited mechanical skills were increasingly indulged by Rick, and it was not uncommon, on quiet days when only one of the girls was in the office, to be asked to take a vehicle out on test, a slipping clutch, vibration or odd noise being the usual alleged source of concern. “Give it a good long run then let me know what you think,” would be my instruction. Invariably I found nothing, and was puzzled by Rick’s neurosis. Only years later did it dawn on me that his motives may have been less than honourable.